You Also Put Rubbish In Black Bags

On Friday 16th December we were at the port of Palermo to welcome the 388 migrants who have beaten death and arrived on board the Spanish military vessel Navarra. Along with those rescued, there was also one body. Up until the moment of arrival at Palermo, the staff at the port ready to assist in the landing operation had still not been notified of the corpse. It is entirely likely that this person – brought to dry land in a black bag, and welcomed with the blessing of the ever-present Comboni Lay Mission – died after being rescued at sea, on their way to Palermo. The person suffered diabetes and, after the psycho-physical stress and inhumane conditions, did not manage to win out against the odds, death instead winning once again, with the assistance of European policies.

The Spanish ship captain refused to dock in at the “4venti”, claiming it was too shallow, a situation which delayed the landing, which was meant to start at 7am but in the end began at midday. In the end the migrants descended in groups of 23 at a time on board two dinghies which ferried them from the ship, which remained outside the port and dock. The body was also brought in on a rubber boat; there was no parade of honour awaiting it, no TV, nothing; only a black bag, as if it were no more than rubbish.

In Palermo there is always the same model of intervention: the landing operation is broken up, and while people arrive at the port, after a very quick triage, they are pre-identified while waiting their transfer to the police station, where they are subjected to a complete identification process (including fingerprinting) and finally taken to the Extraordinary Reception Centres (CAS*) in central and northern Italy. The only difference in relation to previous landing operations was in the distribution of the emergency needs kit: the business which has been awarded this role for some time had run out of supplies for this landing, so that Caritas Italiana was given permission to distribute kits at Palermo this time. It was as if the representatives from Caritas were somewhere else, being entirely disinterested in the landing, the corpse and the migrants, simply there for an opportunity to publicise their work.
After everyone who arrived had been fingerprinted, the adults left Palermo in the middle of the night, while the 45 unaccompanied minors have been taken to emergency accommodation. There are ongoing serious problems in Palermo for the minors who are housed in overfull centres, without appropriate separation: young men and women (including potentially victims of human trafficking) put together within the same buildings. This is a continuing emergency which lends itself to people running away from the centres, without any protection or care, without any project for being introduced into work or society more generally, despite the host of claims made in the press.

Unfortunately, this emergency, designed in the European board rooms, means that it is then filtered through the practices of the Italian Prefectures, creating problems which are felt across the region: the lack of staff and of available funds to pay the centres, and the absence of sufficient monitoring. Yet again there’s simply a lack of any planning in the reception system!

The priority is to identify people and then “park” them in the Extraordinary Reception Centres. An emblematic example is that of ‘G’, a Nigerian woman who arrived 7 months ago, who we met some weeks back in the Madonna dell’accoglienza, a CAS in the Boccadifalco neighbourhood, in the suburbs of Palermo.

‘G’ was pregnant when she arrived; she was immediately taken to hospital where she suffered an abortion. The child was wrapped in a black bag, more rubbish that we want to hide away; she was discharged and transferred to the CAS. Since then she has not begun any of the necessary bureaucracy, not even a formal request for asylum – she has not been listened to, but simply parked. Nothing has come of ‘G’s continual requests to be reunited with her husband, housed in a CAS in Lazio. ‘G’ showed us a marriage certificate, saying that she has never seen a lawyer. “Thank you, thank you for everything”, she told us emotionally on the telephone a couple of days’ ago, “Italy had abandoned me, but not only me, they separated me and my husband, we still don’t understand why, we haven’t even been able to cry together over the death of our child who the political leaders killed, thank you because you people listened to me and it didn’t take much, now we’re together again, hoping that the police won’t separate us again.” ‘G’ thanked us, but we did not do anything which took much effort, simply listening to her situation and then flagging up the organisations and institutions for reuniting families, which are often broken up at landing operations.

Unfortunately we found many other similar situations in the Madonna dell’accoglienza CAS: a centre for women, women with children, and nuclear families, it ought house 33 people, but instead ‘contains’ 56. The Prefecture emphasised that in emergencies it prefers to find spaces rather than having women and children sleep on the streets. In the Province of Palermo, there is now only one centre dedicated to hosting women and children, with the consequence that 12 women have been housed in what was once the children’s play room, on small camp beds, where pregnant women sleep up till the 8th month, new mothers next to their newborns, and even a mother together with a small child with Down syndrome, only a few months’ old. In conclusion, there’s still an “emergency”!

The centre is a former welfare centre (IPAB*) now managed by the Societate cooperative, its first experience in the immigration sector. The cooperative justifies the lack of winter clothing, blankets, Wifi (the only way to communicate with families back home) by referring to economic difficulties. The centre has been forgotten by the police (Questura) inasmuch as the women haven’t even been called to formalise their request for asylum, as the staff have reported, and the wait would now be 8 months. The women thus live in a situation of abandonment, and the centre’s psychologist does not even make many appointments because he is too busy with practical administration, despite the fact that constant checks are necessary, and attentive care, given that many of the women have been raped and tortured in Libya, and suffered abortions, and unfortunately all too frequently there is no psychological support whatsoever, partly due to language problems.

There is also no accompaniment for mothers whose children are in hospital, ‘O’ tells us: “My husband and I don’t have any money for the bus ticket to go and see our child who’s been recovering for a month; we haven’t had our pocket money for more than 2 months; they can’t take us in the car so we take turns, but unfortunately we don’t understand the doctor and we don’t always have news, so we have to wait for news when, every now and again, the facilitie’s manager calls the hospital.”

Finally we met ‘E’, who is extremely angry because her son is forced to wear ‘feminine’ colours. Little ‘D’ had been dressed all in pink. “It’s not right, there aren’t even clothes for my little son, I took the used clothes but I couldn’t find any for boys, they told me to search, but they wouldn’t put such old and smelly clothes on their own sons, it’s not right; there isn’t even a blanket for the cold.” ‘E’, like the other women we met, has been waiting to formalise her asylum request since May, but you know, in these times of emergency the waiting times can be very long!

Before leaving we passed by a room full of black bags, like those we saw at the port, the ones we use to hide away the bodies of people we murder on the sea. Fortunately it was only a pile of trash: in the end, you also put rubbish in black bags!

Alberto Biondo
Borderline Sicilia

Project “OpenEurope” – Oxfam Italia, Diaconia Valdese, Borderline Sicilia Onlus

*CAS = Centro di Accoglienza Straordinaria (Extraordinary Reception Centre)
*IPAB = Istituto pubblico di assistenza e beneficenza (Public institute for help and assistance)

Translation by Richard Braude